Associations How We Learn

Associations are representations of events, people, and places that form when the brain decides to link different kinds of information, especially if the link is likely to be useful in the future. The raw material for associations originates primarily from the five senses but also can be emotional or social cues. The brain takes several different things into account in deciding whether to forge these mental connections. For example, if something provides inputs to two or more senses close together in time, like the sight, smell, and taste of a cheeseburger, the brain will almost automatically link the sensations. In essence, this is our basic learning process.

The classic example of associative linking, often taught in introductory psychology courses, is Dr. Ivan Pavlov's experiments with dogs. Dogs normally salivate at the sight of food. Every day when Pavlov fed the dogs, he rang a bell. After a few days, just ringing a bell made the dogs salivate, even if no food was presented.

These dogs made an association—a connection within their brains—that a certain sensory stimulus (the bell) meant food. Consequently, the sound of the bell alone made the brain instruct the salivary glands to get ready for food. Hu mans and animals can form similar links between almost any kind of sensory inputs.

Obviously, humans are capable of much more sophisticated and abstract learning that isn't as closely tied to external stimuli (like bells) or external rewards (like food). Take learning a language, for example. An infant learns language by associating a particular set of sounds with a certain behavior, person, or object. (An explicit reward may or may not be present.)

Once such associations are formed, they reside in the brain as a long-term memory, which can be accessed just by experiencing the original stimulus. It's rather astounding when you think about it: A certain kind of sensory experience can permanently change the wiring in part of your brain!

Most of what we learn and remember relies on the ability of the brain to form and retrieve associations in much the same way as Pavlov's dogs learned that a bell meant food. For example, you pick up a rose, and its smell activates the olfactory (smelling) parts of the cortex, its image activates the visual areas, and the soft petals or sharp thorns activate the feeling sections. All these different sensations cause nerve cells in very different areas of the cortex to be activated at the same time in a particular pattern, strengthening some of the linkages between these areas.

Once that happens, anything that activates just part of the network will activate all the areas of the brain that have representations of rose events. Someone hands you a rose, and as you hold it, you may remember your first wedding anniversary when you received a dozen roses, which reminds you of your first apartment in that awful building with the broken elevator. Or the smell of roses reminds you of Aunt Harriet's rose garden in late summer where you had picnics with your cousin Arnie who is now living in California and whom you keep meaning to call—all sorts of memories result from a single stimulus.

But if you smell, touch, and see a rose, a much larger number of direct and indirect pathways between the olfactory, visual, and tactile areas are activated (above, right segment). These associative linkages between senses help in memory recall.

But if you smell, touch, and see a rose, a much larger number of direct and indirect pathways between the olfactory, visual, and tactile areas are activated (above, right segment). These associative linkages between senses help in memory recall.

MEMORY

Existing programs for brain exercise have ignored this powerful associative route to forming and retrieving memories. Neurobics seeks to access it by providing the cortex with the raw material that will create new and potent associations.

Because each memory is represented in many different cortical areas, the stronger and richer the network of associations or representations you have built into your brain, the more your brain is protected from the loss of any one representation.1

Take the common problem of remembering names. When you meet a new person, your brain links a name to a few sensory inputs, such as his appearance (visual). When the brain is younger, these few associations are strong enough so that the next time you see this person, you recall his name. But the more you age, the more people you've met, leaving fewer unique visual characteristics available to represent each new person, so the associative links between visual characteristics and names are more tenuous. Now, imagine closing your eyes in the course of meeting someone. Sensory inputs, other than vision, become much more important as the basis for forming associations necessary for recalling a name: the feel of his hand, his smell, the quality of his voice.

Ordinary First Meeting Neurobic First

Ordinary First Meeting Neurobic First

Name Recall: If you use only sight when you meet someone, you're less likely to remem" ber hjs name. If, on the other hand, you use all your senses, you'll have many more as" soclat)ons-"thinning hair< middle-aged, glasses, hand feels like a damp, Ihip ra& clothes smell like a smokehouse, voice sounds like a bullfrog"—toreca|| hjs name

Name Recall: If you use only sight when you meet someone, you're less likely to remem" ber hjs name. If, on the other hand, you use all your senses, you'll have many more as" soclat)ons-"thinning hair< middle-aged, glasses, hand feels like a damp, Ihip ra& clothes smell like a smokehouse, voice sounds like a bullfrog"—toreca|| hjs name

You have now tagged someone's name with not just one or two associations, but at least four. If access to one associative pathway is partly blocked ("Gosh, he looks familiar"), you can tap into associations based on other senses and do an end run around the obstruction. Adopting the strategies of forming multisensory associations when the brain is still at or near its Peak performance—in the forties and fifties—builds a bulwark against some of the inevitable loss of processing power later in life. If your network of associations is very large, it's like having a very tightly woven net, and the loss of a few threads isn't going to let much fall through.

These multisensory representations for tasks like remembering names were always available to you, but early on, your brain established an effective routine for meeting people that relied primarily on visual cues. An important part of the Neu-robic strategy is to help you "see" in other ways—to use other senses to increase the number and range of associations you make. The larger your "safety net," the better your chances of solving a problem or meeting a challenge because you simply have more pathways available to reach a conclusion.

More often than not, adults don't exploit the brain's rich potential for multisensory associations. Think of a baby encountering a rattle. She'll look at it closely, pick it up, and run her fingers around it, shake it, listen to whether it makes a sound, and then most likely stick it in her mouth to taste and feel it with her tongue and lips. The child's rapidly growing brain uses all of her senses to develop the network of associations that will become her memory of a rattle.

Now think of yourself finding a rattle on the floor. Most likely, you'll just look at it and instantly catalog it: "It's a rattle." The point is that a child is constantly tapping into the brain's ability to strengthen and increase connections between its many regions—for smelling, touching, hearing, tasting, and seeing—to produce an ever-growing tapestry of associations...and neural activity.

Adults miss out on this multisen-sory experience of new associations and sensory involvement because we tend to rely heavily on only one or two senses. As we grow older, we find that life is easier and less stressful when it's predictable. So we tend to avoid new experiences and develop routines around what we already know and feel comfortable with. By doing this, we reduce opportunities for making new associations to a level that is less than ldeal for brain fltness-

Simultaneous sensoiy input creates a neural "safety net" that traps information for future access.

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